Living large in 150 square feet: Why the tiny house movement is taking off

"It's not about the tiny house, it's about the life you're going to lead in it"

Topics: tiny houses, Consumerism, Economic Recession, sustainable housing, Editor's Picks, Ryan Mitchell, tiny house movement, the tiny life, , ,

Come across one of the many photos of the “tiny houses” circulating on blogs and Pinterest, and your first reaction will probably be how cute they are — itty, bitty, bite-size domiciles straight out of a fairy tale. Your second reaction, depending on who you are, is either: How do people fit in there? Or simply, why?

Or, for a select group of individuals: How do I get one of my own?

Welcome to the world of tiny housers, people whose choice of living space more or less forces them to embrace the simple life. Many of them live off-the-grid and are of the DIY mentality; they’ve built a community through blogging about their space-maximizing decorating strategies, renting out their homes as novelty hotels (the 165-square foot house pictured above is available on Airbnb) and getting together at tiny house conferences, all while attempting to legitimize their housing choice in the eyes of building codes drawn too narrowly to include their alternative lifestyle.

Ryan Mitchell became enamored with the idea of tiny houses back in 2008, he tells Salon. He’s been an enthusiastic member of the movement since then, blogging about the homes at TheTinyLife.com and publishing a book, out July 14, that functions both as a treatise of the tiny house lifestyle and how-to guide for “building and living well in less than 400 square feet.” On the eve of — at long last — moving into a 150-square home he’s built himself, Mitchell spoke with Salon about the economic and environmental benefits of tiny living. Read on for our interview, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, and check out more tiny house photos from the book below:

So to start off, can I ask you how you got involved with this movement — if you do consider it to be a movement?



I do consider it a movement. We’ve seen a lot of growing interest in tiny houses and every time I think it can’t grow anymore, it surprises me — the traffic to our website, the interest that we see, the number of houses being built — it’s just growing, frankly exponentially. We typically see two to three times the traffic every single year.

When I first started this back in 2008, no one ever really heard of tiny houses, they didn’t know what they were, but now it’s almost to the point where you say “tiny houses” and people know what a tiny house is and some general information about it: what the movement’s about, why people do it; they usually have seen a picture or two of these tiny houses and they’re fascinated by them. So in just a few short years we went from not a whole lot of recognition to pretty widespread recognition and then a lot of people taking charge and adopting the lifestyle.

So how I got started was, back in 2008, I was just out of graduate school. I landed my first career job and it was very exciting: It was a good job, I made good money. I was there for about six months, and then one day the owner of the business comes in, Friday afternoon, and says, “I just want to let you know that today is going to be the last day of this company being open, and we’re closing today at 5 o’clock, so everyone can clear out their desks.”

My co-workers and I stood there that Friday afternoon on the curb with our desks in boxes and were just reeling from the announcement that our company was closing, that we were jobless at that point, despite working hard and all that. I realized there wasn’t anything guaranteed, even with working hard and a good education and things like that. This is at the beginning of the recession, and jobs were very difficult to get.

Luckily I was able to find a job a month or two after, but that feeling never really left me, and I didn’t like how exposed and how compromised I felt, in just: “How am I going to pay the rent?” “What about eating, and where is the money going to come from?”  ”Am I going to have to move home with my parents?” You know, whatever the implications might have been. It left a really big impact on me, and so I said never again, and I started looking at my budget and I realized that housing costs were about half of my expenditures every month. I asked a crazy question: What if I could eliminate my housing costs, which would basically mean eliminating half of my cost of living. I had no idea how I was going to do that, but I said, you know what, it would be worth it to try to explore. So I looked around at lots of options, did lots of research, and I discovered tiny houses. It was a really new thing at that point, and there weren’t a lot of people talking about it. I was able to see a tiny house in person, and that’s when I decided to launch my blog, and five years later now, I’ve written this book, and it’s been kind of a crazy journey.

Would you say you could trace the beginning of the interest that’s building in this to the economic crisis and to problems like you experience, or do you see it as more of a pushback against consumerism? Or maybe a mix of everything?

I would definitely say it’s a mix, because the tiny house movement in a small form existed before the recession. It certainly expanded greatly during the recession but one of the things that other bloggers and I were writing and asking was: Is this just a fad? Is this going to kind of peter out after the recession? And I think, now that most would say we’re pretty much out of this recession, or at least on the way, we’ve only seen interest grow. I put on a conference every year, and that’s been growing in popularity. So just by all measures it’s been growing. And a lot of people do come to it because of the financial aspects of it: They can save so much money, not have debt, not be exposed, have reduced risk. But I think some people also come to it from an environmental standpoint, and a life simplification standpoint, and I think even if you do come at it from a money standpoint, eventually you start to appreciate the other benefits.

When you talk to people who are new to this idea, what’s the hardest thing for them to wrap their minds around?

Obviously the size. It’s just … it is an extreme; it’s definitely an extreme. It’s not something that is for everyone. But I think a lot of people can see maybe not 150 square feet, but maybe like a 500- to 600-square-foot home compared to the average home today, which I think is about 2,600 square feet. So, I think people are kind of shocked at that initial size, but when you actually get to step into one of these tiny houses, things click, and you really understand how they could actually work, just because of how well they’re laid out and how well they’re designed and the thought that went into the furniture and the storage and the layout, things like that. In the book, I talk a lot about that: how modern home-building is basically geared toward maximum profits, not toward quality design or the best user experience, the user being the homeowner. You know, how can I design a home to make a person the most happy, actualized, productive person possible? None of those considerations are made with traditional housing. It’s how much money can I eke out of this, how many square feet can I fit on this lot so that I can earn the most potential? So there are a lot of things that are sacrificed in traditional housing that tiny houses have really done right. And I think that when people walk into a tiny house, that really resonates with them. There’s something that they may not be able to put their finger on, but it just feels right, and it’s something that a lot of particularly Americans haven’t really experienced when it comes to housing.

The extreme nature of it does make it seem like people are trying to make a statement: You mention one couple in the book who are planning to build a separate tiny house for their daughter so she’ll have her own room, and they’re adding sheds and storage, which made me think, why don’t they just expand the house and make it a little bit bigger? Are some people just trying to make a point?

Generally, no, I think not. Just because the type of person that finds themselves in an actual tiny house is someone that, in order to live in such a small space … you really have to know who you are and what do you stand for and be comfortable with a lot of things about yourself. I talk about introspection in the book and about having a personal mission statement, things like that, and so, I feel like the people that are in a tiny house are generally there for the right reason. Because if they weren’t, it wouldn’t work for them. They would quickly realize they couldn’t do it. I think the folks that live in tiny houses are typically very self-aware, much more than probably the average person.

But would you say there’s also a novelty factor that plays into it?

Initially, yeah, definitely. Obviously, because when you first get exposed to the idea, it’s, “Oh, that’s a great idea! It saves so much money, I could live debt-free,” and all this stuff. But I think once you really get into the nuts and bolts of it, when you start swinging that hammer and building your own home, there’s definitely a transformation that happens, where you’re not just building a house, you’re building a life for yourself. And I talk about that too in the book, about how tiny houses are really a vehicle, and in a weird way, it’s almost — it’s not about the tiny house, actually — it’s about the life that you’re going to lead in it and the changes in your life and the ability to pursue your passions and your interests to the point where most people couldn’t.

The photos all look so appealing. And it took me a while to think to myself that I also live in a space that’s pretty much the size of the rooms I’m seeing in the book, because that’s how far my money will get me for an apartment in New York. So how does apartment living play into this whole idea, and are there lessons to be learned for people who can’t afford a larger space?

Sure, I get this question every now and then. Basically, a tiny house is sort of the suburban or maybe even rural version of a small apartment, and so I think what we can learn from tiny houses, in the form that you see in the book — I mean, they’re built on a trailer, they’re stick-built, they’re generally parked on an open lot — are design ideas and concepts that can apply to an apartment that we can kind of learn from and experiment with. Tiny houses are such an extreme kind of experiment in small living, so when you have the room of an apartment, you can use those things as need be.

And then, even for people who are living in larger houses or who are never going to go to that extreme, are there other principles that might be carried over without the tiny house itself?

Yeah, I think so. Like I mentioned before, it’s not so much the house, in certain ways, it’s more about the life that you want to lead. And the tiny house form factor definitely facilitates more of a life that people would want to lead. But I think a lot of the concepts and ideas that I present in the book about living an inspired life, basically, could be applied to traditional houses, in the way that people participate as consumers, how they approach their possessions, how they spend their money, how they think about money and debt and things like that. I definitely think people in larger homes could take some of those lessons and apply them in their situation.

I’m intrigued by the idea you mention in the book of “net positive houses”: these homes that are able to not just cut down on resources but actually contribute in a positive way to the environment. Can you explain how they manage to achieve that?

It’s kind of a progression of things. First we have your standard house that is relatively destructive. You come and clear out a lot. You destroy all those trees. Then you bring in all this lumber from wood that you harvested, and then you make this huge house. It’s a huge energy sink. And then we started shifting to more efficient houses, and then net neutral houses, where basically the impact of the house is offset. Now we’re seeing houses that are using reclaimed lumber so they’re reducing the amount of waste that’s put into the landfill. They’re producing more power than they’re using so they’re putting back into the grid, and usually that’s through solar panels, so it’s environmentally friendly. It also happens through different choices people make: a lot of people do composting; a lot of people use composting toilets; a lot of people use gray water systems. So basically, when you kind of look at the impact of some of these tiny houses — not all, but some of them — you actually see a shift from a negative impact to somewhat of a positive impact, because we’re reducing landfill but then also contributing back green resources.

Another big aspect of this are problems with building codes, making a lot of these houses technically illegal. Are there efforts underway to change that? 

It’s definitely a tricky problem to tackle, because a lot of these things are deeply entrenched bureaucratic policies and codes. And a lot of these things are very, very slow-moving. The International Code Council, for example — which is kind of the go-to governing body of most municipalities — they typically take between five and 15 years to adopt a new code. And then once they issue a new standard, cities don’t typically adopt it right away; it could be 10 years before they adopt that new standard. And then they could amend it on their own to either include it or not, or whatever they want to do. So currently there are about 3,300 municipalities in the United States that have their own code. We’re trying to affect slow-moving governmental agencies, that are pretty large scale; that could be tricky to do. But there’s definitely a lot of people working toward those efforts.

So are you living in your own tiny house now?

I’m actually moving it to where I’ll be parking it tomorrow. I expect within a week or so, I’ll be living in it full-time.

And that’ll be a first for you?

Oh, yeah.

What kinds of things are you anticipating? What are you worried about?

It’s definitely been a long process for me. I’ve been working full-time so I only get to build on the weekends. So it’s been something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time, talking about for a long time on the blog and in the book.

Over the years in working on this on the blog and then starting my house and then writing this book, it’s given me a lot of time to kind of shift and think about things personally. I’ve noticed that just from when I started, I just don’t buy a whole lot anymore. It’s usually purchases with a purpose. If my pants are worn out, I buy a new pair of pants. If I want to buy food, and things like that. But it’s such a reduced level compared to what it used to be. And I don’t even think I was ever that big of a consumer and spender before this. But it’s dramatically taken a step down to the point where there’s just very little that I buy and, frankly, want. And now I’m in the position — you know, just financially — where my cost of living is so low with a tiny house that if I wanted something, I could just buy it with cash. I wouldn’t have to worry about how I’m going to pay for this, or put it on a credit card. Not only has my purchasing and consuming gone down, but my desire for such things has really changed a lot, too.

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Lindsay Abrams

Lindsay Abrams is a staff writer at Salon, reporting on all things sustainable. Follow her on Twitter @readingirl, email labrams@salon.com.

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